Electronic ticketing takes flight

November 17, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Once upon a time, possession of an E-ticket meant you were headed for one of the best rides at Disneyland. Then Disney abandoned those old ticket books, and now an E-ticket is likely to mean a commuter flight to a major U.S. city. And soon it may mean any flight anywhere -- without an actual ticket in hand.

Electronic ticketing, also known as "E-ticketing" (on Continental and United airlines) and "ticketless travel" (on American and Southwest), has overwhelmed early skepticism among carriers and spread throughout the U.S. airline industry. America West, Delta and United say they may go international with the practice in 1997.

So far, all E-ticketing programs are voluntary. Details vary from airline to airline, but electronic ticketing typically works this way: A traveler calls the airline or calls a travel agent who is connected to airlines via a computerized reservation system. The traveler decides on a flight, gives a credit-card number, and is given a confirmation number. Either automatically or by request (depending on the carrier), the traveler can receive an itinerary and receipt by mail or, if time is tight, by fax.

At the airport on departure day, the traveler shows photo identification, reads back the confirmation number or shows a credit card, or both, is issued a boarding pass and is ushered aboard.

This industrywide change comes despite frequent confusion and occasional opposition among travelers, and widespread reluctance among travel agents, who see E-ticketing as a threat to their role as intermediaries between airlines and consumers.

Ralph Whitmore, editor of the Upscale Traveler newsletter and an E-ticket naysayer, argues that "with the actual ticket in hand, you can verify that your flight arrangements are correct ahead of time." And if computers go down while a plane is boarding, he suggests, passengers with tickets in hand are likely to face less delay.

But E-ticketing does offer advantages: Most obviously, you can't lose your tickets if you never have any. Ticketing changes by phone mean less paperwork.

Another key factor: Electronic ticketing promises hefty cost reductions for the airlines.

At Southwest, which became the first major carrier to use ticket-less travel system-wide in January 1995, officials estimate it saved the company $25 million last year. In the first two years of the program, the airline has gone from selling 40 percent of its tickets directly to consumers to selling 60 percent that way, saving a fortune in commissions to travel agents.

America West has been offering E-ticketing on all its domestic flights since January.

American launched its ticket-less travel program on all domestic flights Sept. 10, and at its busiest airports it has added 21 machines that recognize passengers by their credit cards or premium frequent-flier cards, and spit out stubs that serve as boarding passes.

Continental launched its E-ticketing program in the first half of this year and now offers it on all of its domestic flights. The carrier has installed 94 machines in 33 cities to read travelers' credit cards, then issue boarding passes.

USAir started E-ticketing in April, now an option on all domestic flights.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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